At least no one will get to the end of director David Fincher’s latest, The Killer, and feel in any way misled by the title. Or the film’s droll, on-the-nose tagline for that matter: “Execution is everything,” arguably the most Fincherian tagline ever, as a colleague pointed out.
Adapted by longtime Fincher collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker from a graphic novel written by Alexis Nolent (aka Matz) and illustrated by Luc Jacamon, this wry, efficient and very process-oriented crime thriller revolves around an unnamed assassin played by Michael Fassbender. Descended from a long line of cinematic guns for hire, he’s less ruthless than affectless, almost literally the shadow of a man. (As lit by DP Erik Messerschmidt, his face constantly disappears into the dark under the brim of his cheap bucket hat.)
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However, this killer is compelled to vary his usual routine when a hit in Paris goes wrong. The result is a satisfyingly retro, location-hopping genre exercise with fisticuffs, gadgets (albeit ones bought from Amazon) and smooth-talking antagonists that all plays like a tongue-in-cheek spoof of James Bond movies, but with a much more amoral anti-hero. The ending even lands in such a way that Netflix — working with Fincher again even though his admired series Mindhunter for them was cancelled — could turn this into a franchise.
In fact, in some respects The Killer is an anti-Bond, anti-super-cool-assassin film, an exercise in subverting expectations. In terms of costuming alone, in the hands of designer Cate Adams, instead of dapper tuxedos, elaborate disguises or supposedly camouflaging black turtlenecks, the killer dresses in deliberately boring ready-to-wear duds, usually in shades of depleted beige or exhausted cream. Early on, his deadpan, American-accented voiceover (abundantly deployed here, recalling Fincher’s Fight Club) explains that he’s aiming to look, at least while on assignment in Paris, like a German tourist, because the French “avoid German tourists the way most of us avoid street mimes.” That said, he is still incarnated by the ineluctably photogenic Fassbender, so his cheekbones alone could be used as deadly weapons.
Where other movie assassins sweep into safe houses at exactly the right time to pull the trigger and get out, this killer spends days in the film’s first Parisian chapter fighting boredom as he stares out of a window, waiting for his target to show up in the apartment directly opposite the WeWork space the killer has hired. When not watching for his prey, he does yoga (his one-legged Warrior III is particularly elegant), spies on the people across the street like James Stewart in Rear Window and rocks out to, of all things, the early hits of 1980s British bedsit mope-meisters The Smiths, who feature throughout. The band’s twangy guitar sounds, droning vocals and loping rhythms mesh perfectly with the often atonal score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and sound designer Ren Klyce’s unsettling soundscape, which features subsonic, insectoid rumbles that may induce Havana Syndrome in some viewers. (I kid, but only just.)
All these aural elements become more fragmentary and disorienting in the lead-up to the hit that goes wrong, inciting the action that follows. The killer is compelled to flee, disposing of the elaborate rifle he used by dismantling it and throwing the pieces in various sewers and passing garbage trucks in an atmospheric moped-assisted escape sequence.
After responsibly reporting the mishap to his handler (Charles Parnell), he heads home to the Dominican Republic. But when he arrives at his stylishly modernist white-walled villa by the sea, he finds someone got to his house before him and beat, brutalized and possibly raped his romantic partner Magdala (Sophie Charlotte). Miraculously, she survives and reports that her attackers were a man and a woman who arrived by taxi.
The rest of the film ambles alongside the killer as he goes about hunting down those who hired the hit on him and hurt Magdala. As in the John Wick franchise, but with wittier one-liners, the essential motivation for everyone appears to be revenge, pursued with completist relish and mixed with a certain fastidiousness about not leaving any traces or surviving witnesses. Since we never get a chance to see the killer with Magdala before she’s attacked, it’s harder to get invested in their love, so her suffering feels like little more than collateral damage in an impersonal war of attrition between this man and his foes.
As the story progresses, each encounter produces empathy tests for the killer to probe whether he’ll soften at all. Will he kill Dolores (Kerry O’Malley), the efficient office administrator who works for Hodges, the handler who originally dispatched the killer on the Paris mission? Or at least eliminate her in such a way that her kids can collect on her life insurance? Will the killer conform to Hollywood’s unwritten rule of refraining from murdering animals, and so spare the life of a pit bull, Diva, who lives with another opponent, described in the chapter heading as The Brute (Sala Baker)? How about the epicurean rival assassin he meets toward the end known as The Expert (Tilda Swinton, performing without any of the uglifying prosthetics she seems to favor so often these day)? Will he spare this gracious lady, who tells a classic joke about a hunter and a talking grizzly bear so charmingly?
At several junctions, the killer doesn’t do what many viewers might expect, and that unpredictability persists right to the end, but possibly not in an entirely satisfying way. Let’s just say that morally, The Killer is all over the place, which may alienate some viewers. Others may delight in both the protagonist and the film’s puckish, zero-fucks-given attitude, one that seems entirely, atheistically uninhibited by fear of a punitive deity or higher moral purpose.
As the killer says, there is no luck or fate or life path except the one behind you — a bracingly existentialist philosophy that goes with the mid-century modern vibes from the film’s many references to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic Le Samourai.
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